Natasha Walter: Stop laughing. Start getting angry

'The continuation of the Royal Family into this century rests on a mixture of nostalgia and cynicism. Both are unpalatable'
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The Independent Online

If you're reading The Independent, I'd guess that you're not a truly dedicated royal-watcher. You are, therefore, likely to have missed the increasingly frenzied revelations in the rest of the press about the loves, lives and hates of our first family. You may not have heard, for instance, that the Queen washes up after her own meals at Balmoral. That, indeed, Margaret Thatcher once sent her a pair of washing-up gloves for Christmas. Or that she has won first prize in some dog-handling competitions at Sandringham.

All of these riveting tales, and more, have appeared in newspapers this week. Most of the gossip is made up of anodyne inanities, but here and there the viciously cruel, judgmental note that we have come to expect from royal-watchers creeps in. So the lives and conduct of the Queen, her husband and her eldest son are held up to the usual cold scrutiny, and found very much wanting. "If the Queen had taken half as much trouble about the rearing of her children as she has about the breeding of her horses, the Royal Family wouldn't be in such a mess now", goes a typical statement, from a typically anonymous "former private secretary".

This fresh tide of gossip started in The Daily Telegraph, but other newspapers have been falling over themselves to pick up on the tales – in general, under a mask of self-righteous disapproval. One so-called left-wing tabloid called The Daily Telegraph the "Daily Traitors" for running such stories, while repeating them in lip-smacking detail. Another tabloid ran the revelations on page one, plus three more pages inside, and then appended an editorial judging the whole farrago of "malice, backbiting and indisciplined gossip" to have been a ghastly mistake in the year of the Golden Jubilee.

No one could be surprised that this year is being marked, not by any surge of respect, but by an orgy of gossip. It has become a truism to note that the royal family, once the repository of absolute power, has become merely a soap opera, a source of fodder for the tabloids. And of all the soap operas it is the most effective – the longest-running, the most trivial, the most popular.

In such a context, it is often pretty hard for republicans to keep up their fire and fury. How can one possibly attack this institution, which has dwindled from being the unacceptable face of unbridled state power to being a group of light entertainers? If they are only there to provide us with some funny copy in the less serious newspapers, what exactly are we trying to stamp out when we call for their abolition? Now that nobody takes the Queen seriously, and even the most devoted royal-watchers see her life and work only as a source of hilarious gossip, what are we sharpening our axes – or at least, our tongues – for?

But let's be honest. There is still a space for anger here, and not just laughter. This family is not only a more or less entertaining soap opera. They are also the richest and most privileged set of people in the land, the largest landowners, the owners of the most spectacular series of properties and artworks. And their wealth grows steadily, partly because of their absurd exemption from inheritance tax. This exemption continues down the generations, for the obvious reason, as one royal commentator explained recently, that otherwise "they might end up having to sell a palace".

Even the half-hearted attempts to open up their treasure troves to the public, with the opening of some rooms of Buckingham Palace and the planned opening of parts of further palaces, has only taken place on the understanding that the public must pay through the nose to see what their head of state owns. Yet these riches, especially the incomparable royal art collections, should be seen as belonging to the nation. And, despite all the rich revenues they have from their own assets, the Windsors still receive £9m every year for the Civil List and £15m for the maintenance of royal palaces from us, the taxpayers.

Isn't it ever so slightly bizarre that we scrutinise our political leaders to punish the slightest hint of sybaritism – so that a politician who fiddles extra expenses must resign without question, and so that Tony Blair is excoriated for arranging freebies on holiday – and yet we are quite happy to see a constant haemorrhage of cash into the pockets of this group of descendants from the rulers of a previous era?

The continuation of the Royal Family into this century rests on a mixture of nostalgia and cynicism. Both are pretty unpalatable.

In the terms of the first, the Royal Family epitomises the stifling attachment to the past that dogs this country. They sit at the apex of a political system that is steeped in inertia. This love of tradition for its own sake often looks cute – especially during jubilees and state weddings and royal funerals – but it is hardly harmless. The way that the British fetishise tradition seems to have stymied any sensible debate recently about so many issues – all the way from the links between church and state, to the possibility of joining the euro. Above all, the very existence of a royal head of state underlines that sense of hierarchy that runs throughout the political classes, and that even goes further, right out into the rest of society, where ordinary people are still sited as subjects rather than citizens.

And that sense of nostalgia is now mixed with an equally nasty cynicism. "We pay for you!" the media seem to be saying to the Windsors as they flash their private lives all over the front pages, "so you'll dance to our tune." Perhaps the public are, understandably, looking for a return on the their investment in this pointless charade. So, in exchange for their vast riches and exemption from normal life, the individuals in the Royal Family are compelled to live out their lives in the hungry lens of a cynical media.

Very few individuals with any power over this nasty situation seem to be able to view it with the sort of clarity that would be necessary to change it. Funnily enough, one who may be angry enough to want to end it may also be the one who stands in line to inherit all its privileges. A recent article about Prince William laid out a pretty convincing – or at least, comprehensible – case that the prince is something of a republican.

"Do I have to be part of this family?" he is reported to have demanded since his teens. And who can blame him? He knows what the price of his bloated inheritance is, having seen his father's life warped and his mother's life destroyed.

Wouldn't it be great to see the prince leading the cause of republicanism into the new century? It might be bizarre, but no more bizarre than what we have right now. Who really wants this warped, oppressive culture of royalty to go on defining Britain into the next century? Nearly half of British people think the monarchy will have disappeared by the year 2051. Let's hope that they're right, and that in the next 50 years we manage to create a situation where poor William Windsor can live an unremarkable, useful life, rather than joining his father and grandmother in their gilded goldfish bowl.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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